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Friday, April 13, 2012

Out of the Way Art

In our world of one-stop shopping and Internet instant access, our ever-simplifying minds have a tendency to think all the great art in the world is located in half-a-dozen big cities in an equally inadequate number of big museums. Let me dispute this myth. While New York, London, Paris, Rome, Florence, St. Petersburg, and Vienna have more than their fair share of the world's great art treasures, they do not own them all...or even the best. All of which makes it inconvenient for the art-oriented tourist, but serves to encourage people to venture into the hinterlands of art in search of local treasures of international importance.

The Lamentation, 1304-06, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
An excellent "for instance" can be found in the Italian Town of Padua. It dates from the early fourteenth century by the greatest fresco artist of the day, Giotto. His frescoes are located in the Scrovegni Chapel, what's known as the Arena Chapel (built on the site of an ancient Roman arena). Giotto's cycle of encircling frescoes depicting the Life of Mary may be the great work of narrative Christian art anywhere in the world. His most famous work, The Lamentation (above) is part of this exceptionally well-preserved fresco group. Even today, despite it's medieval style, visitors have been moved to tears in seeing it.

Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586-88, El Greco,
Santo Tomo, Toledo, Spain
One reason for the geographical displacement of many of the world's greatest art masterpieces is that they are often not in museums, but in churches. Like the Giotto fresco, this is also the case with Grunewald's emotionally charged Isenheim Altarpiece (Alsace, France) and Jan Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece. The same is true of El Greco's incredible Burial of Count Orgaz (left), located in the small church of Santo Tomo, in Toledo, Spain.

Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81, Auguste Renoir, Phillips Gallery, Washington, DC
But by the same token, several little-known museums own some pretty impressive masterpieces as well.  Washington, DC's modest, Phillips Gallery has Renoir's Impressionist masterpiece, Luncheon of the Boating Party (above). Also in the U.S., at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, one can see Pinky (below, right) by Thomas Lawrence and Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy (below, left).  Detroit's Institute of Art displays Artemisia Gentileschi's horrifying Judith and her Maid Servant with the Head of Holofernes.

The Blue Boy, 1770, Thomas
Gainsborough, Huntington
Library, San Marino, California
And this just covers some of the most famous works. Nearly any flagship museum of even medium-size cities sports a Monet or two, a dozen or so other Impressionist works, often a Raphael Madonna (one of hundreds) plus works by important artists as diverse as Rubens, Remington, Rembrandt, Renoir, and Rodin (and that just covers the "Rs"). So, the lack of a passport or even a plane ticket to New York, is no excuse for not seeing the real thing, instead of squinting at photos in books or on the "net."

Pinkie, 1794, Thomas Lawrence,
Huntington Library, San Marino,

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